Thursday, September 10, 2009

Leave Them Kids Alone

When you teach the same lesson five times in a row, it's bound to evolve, and there's nothing wrong with that; although sometimes I feel a little guilty that my first period class is the perennial trial run. That happened today.

We read our first common text of the year. Because my students select their reading for English themselves, we start most classes by reading a very short text together, usually a poem. I use the approach that Nancie Atwell describes in her book, Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons. Like Atwell, I have found that almost any writing lesson can be illustrated with a poem.

If I err in planning and executing these bite-sized literature lessons, it is in the amount of participation I allow myself in the discussion. I am well-credentialed and opinionated when it comes to literature, and sometimes it just seems like it would be easier and faster if I tell the students what they should get out of the text, especially if they are quiet or tentative. I know that's not so, and I'm always happy when I get concrete proof, like I did today.

I asked the first group to box the verbs and highlight something they noticed about the text, and I had a question prepared to extend the conversation. The kids started slow and sleepy, understandably so-- it was early, and they've only known me and each other for two days. We had a decent discussion, though, and at the end of the lesson I asked them, as I always do, to rate the poem on a scale of 1-10 and tell us what they gave it and why. First period gave it solid sevens with a few outliers-- not such a ringing endorsement.

The verb activity wasn't going the way I wanted it to, so I dropped it for the next class, and asked them to do the highlighting and prepare their answer to my question in advance. Again, 7-8 rating for the poem. For the next class, I asked them to highlight two things and write a question for the group themselves. Big improvement, the quality of the conversation was a lot higher: I was much less involved in extending and re-directing the comments; they made great connections between the text and other texts and their own experiences; they proposed interpretations to each other and worked them through.

All of my classes are heterogeneously grouped, so it wasn't the ability of the kids. The same thing happened in the next classes. AND, all three groups rated the poem consistently higher than the first two. One student actually said, "At first I didn't think much of it, but after we figured it all out, I really liked it," and she held up the page with a big purple 10! written at the top.

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